A., B. and C. v. Ireland concerned three Irish applicants who, in their first trimester of pregnancy, had travelled to England to have an abortion because they believed they would not be allowed to have one in Ireland.
The Irish Constitution, unlike the European Convention on Human Rights, explicitly extends the right to life to the unborn foetus. Abortion is moreover prohibited under the criminal law by section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (“the 1861 Act”) providing as penalty “penal servitude for life”. However, this does not mean that abortion constitutes a criminal act in all circumstances in Ireland. The 1861 legislation needs to be read in light of the amended Irish Constitution, which states in Article 40.3.3: “3° The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right; This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state; This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.”
However, no legislation or other regulatory measures have been adopted to clarify what is meant by the “equal right to life of the mother” and in which situations there is a real and substantial risk to that right to life such as to outweigh the right to life of the unborn foetus.
In A., B. and C. v. Ireland the Grand Chamber of the Court first distinguished between the circumstances of the first and the second applicant on the one hand and the third applicant on the other. It found that the first and second applicant travelled for an abortion for reasons of health and/or well-being, while the third applicant travelled for an abortion as she mainly feared her pregnancy constituted a risk to her life. Moreover, the third applicant complained that she required a regulatory framework by which any risk to her life and her entitlement to a lawful abortion in Ireland could be established, so that any information provided outside such a framework was insufficient. The Court consequently treated the complaint of the third applicant separately.